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Introducing Cinematic And Theatrical Elements In Film

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Introducing Cinematic and Theatrical Elements in Film

by John Golden

In order to begin looking at movies more critically, we need to learn a little bit about the tools that filmmakers use to create their products. If we were studying literature, we’d learn to identify similes, metaphors, and symbols; if we were studying painting, we’d learn about brush strokes, color choice, and composition; but since we’re studying film, we need to identify cinematic technique and theatrical elements and learn how they affect audiences. Cinematic technique can include the framing, angle, and camera movement of a shot, as well as the sound and editing used in a film. Theatrical elements include costumes, props, sets, and acting choice. Each cinematic technique and theatrical element is used by a filmmaker for a particular purpose, and when we analyze films closely, we need to be able to explain the effect that each has on the audience.

Film Production

Throughout this article,, the terms “filmmaker” or “director” will be used when referring to the creator of a film, but this is not necessarily accurate. Even though a novelist often thanks his or her editor on the acknowledgments page, there is rarely any doubt that the true creator of the book is the writer him or herself. This is also true of the painter of an artwork, and the composer of a symphony. The same cannot be said of the director of a movie. While most people refer to the director as the “author” of the film, this is a bit too simplistic because, unlike most arts, filmmaking is a collaborative process. A director might have a great idea for a movie, but without a Producer to secure the financing and to manage the details and budget of a production, the director would have little hope of success.

Once the project of creating the film starts, the real collaborative process begins. During the actual shooting of the film, according to Film Art: An Introduction (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, 2006), there are five main areas of support for the director:

1. The Design Team, which is headed by the production designer. The production designer is responsible for the look of the film’s settings. Working closely with the film’s director, the production designer supervises the staff that creates the sets, designs the costumes, applies the makeup, and locates or constructs the props. Every one of these choices can have a tremendous effect on an audience’s reaction to the film. The design team also includes: the art director, who constructs the sets; the set decorator; the costume designer; and the storyboard artist, who draws comic-strip like sketches of what each shot of the film will look like.

2. The Director’s Crew, which supports the director in communicating with each of the other departments.

3. The Photography Unit, which is headed by the cinematographer (also called the director of photography or DP), who is in charge of the camera movements, focus, framing, and lighting. Have you ever seen credits at the end of a film for someone called the “best boy” or “gaffer”? The gaffer is the head electrician, who places the rigging of the lights and the “best boy” is his or her assistant. And yes, if you look closely, you will see a few female “best boys.”

4. The Sound Unit is responsible for all the on-set recording of dialogue and sound effects.

5. The Cast may include well-known stars, supporting players, or extras. Their work, obviously, is the most visible of all those involved.

After filming is completed, another set of people become involved, including the Editor, whose job is to take the hours of footage and assemble it into a piece that reflects the filmmakers’ purposes. Other people are responsible for creating and inserting special visual effects, sound effects, music, voice-overs, dialogue dubbing, etc.

As you can see, there are too many people involved to accurately call movie making the work of a single director. Usually a director whose film just won an Academy Award is smart enough to realize this and to use his or her time thanking everyone involved in the film, rather than wasting precious minutes thanking his or her second grade teacher. However, for convenience, we will use the term “director” broadly, even though it was probably the DP who came up with the idea for lighting a particular scene or the costume director who selected the wig the actress is wearing.

Cinematic Technique

Throughout this section, the term “shot” will be used repeatedly. A shot refers to one, uninterrupted image that is seen onscreen in a finished film. The shot ends when the camera “cuts” to another image and there is just a tiny, split second of black. Your eye may not register “black” but it is very similar to the blink of an eye. Look at any scene from any movie or TV show and you can practice identifying shots.

Framing: One of the first decisions that a director makes when designing a shot, is deciding how it will be framed. The main choices are close-up, medium shot, and long shot. Each has different consequences for the impression the director is trying to convey.

When an actor is framed in close-up, we will see only the actor’s head from about the neck up; objects shot in close-up take up most of the screen. As stated above, each of these techniques is used for a particular reason, so why would a director want to use a close-up? There could be a number of reasons depending upon the film: close-ups can show enormous amounts of detail, they can reveal characters’ emotions, they can be used to emphasize important objects and details, and they can show intimacy or claustrophobia, among many other effects.

If an actor were framed in a long shot, we would see the actor’s entire body; objects in this type of framing would appear to be seen from some distance. Imagine a character on screen framed in a long shot. You probably could not make out many facial expressions or emotions, but think about what you could see: you can see the character’s surroundings. In a great scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, a man who has been framed for murder is lured to an isolated cornfield, and Hitchcock frames the scene almost entirely in long shots to emphasize the man’s vulnerability and how out of place he is. In addition to showing the setting of a particular scene, long shots can also reveal distance or a lack of emotional connection between characters.

An actor framed in a medium shot would be seen from the waist up. A medium shot


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